A personal linguistic history

In the past couple of months I’ve rediscovered my love of languages. It might sound hyperbolic, but it feels like I’ve recovered a lost part of myself. This recent experience has caused me to reflect on the role that languages, language learning, and linguistics have played throughout my life.

I grew up monolingual. My mom speaks only English, and my dad understood Sicilian but I never heard him speak a word of it that wasn’t profanity. My Sicilian grandmother lived with us as well, but my old man forbade her from speaking her native language to me or my brothers. He didn’t want us to be able to say anything our mother couldn’t understand. In hindsight it pisses me off that the opportunity for me to learn another language natively was wasted. The flip side is that my father was absolutely right and there was zero chance I wouldn’t have abused the knowledge.

Now, just because I didn’t learn to speak Sicilian doesn’t mean I wasn’t exposed to it. I heard it constantly. My grandmother would talk on the phone for hours with my aunt and her friend from the old country, with nary a word of English spoken. When she spoke to my father, Sicilian was the default, even though he answered in English. I internalized more than I realized at the time. More than once my brother would demand I “stop talking like that” after spending a lot of time around my grandmother and I’d pick up her accent. I knew that what I called my grandmother wasn’t “nana” like I heard elsewhere, even if I didn’t know what geminate consonants were.

But really, my linguistic journey began, like so many do, with high-school Spanish. I wanted to take French, since that’s what my father and brother had taken (plus I think my old man felt that French was a “smarter” language than Spanish). But scheduling conflicts “forced” me into Spanish. And boy did I light up. Not only was I pretty good at it, but I liked it. A LOT. Enough that when I started working I wasn’t afraid to use it with my many Latino coworkers. My mom was a manager at the fast-food places I worked at, so she took it for granted, but I still have the flashbulb memory of the first time my always-skeptical father heard me chatting with a coworker. “This isn’t just a few words. You can speak this language. Jesus.”

But that was all behind me when I started college. I scored well enough on my Spanish placement exam that I didn’t need to take any more language courses. I did end up taking an intro linguistics course, but only because I had a crappy registration slot and all the courses I wanted were closed out. Granted, I really liked it. I think that’s what prompted my old man, as I was musing on an elective for the following fall, to recommend I take Italian. Didn’t have to twist my arm.

(A quick aside: Astute readers will have picked up on a theme so far. My old man was a great father in a lot of ways, but he really had a knack for making others’ decisions for them. That changed rather dramatically when he unexpectedly died right before I started my sophomore year of college.)

I very much thrived in Italian. I’m very proud that when I took my final speaking exam after just my first quarter, my instructor told me I shouldn’t have been in the class. I did so well that she assumed I already spoke the language and had bullshitted my way through the class for an easy A. She couldn’t fathom that I’d learned that much that fast from ground zero. It probably didn’t hurt that I still lived at home through college (not least because it was important to be close to my family after my dad’s death). I had an Italian grandmother at the ready to practice with.

Of note: While her native language was Sicilian, she did attend school through fourth grade in Sicily. The medium of instruction in all Italian schools is “italiano proprio.” So she was effectively fluent in three languages: Sicilian, Italian, and English. Speaking so much with her did Sicilianize my Italian a bit — I would overpalatize my s‘s in consonant clusters. a lot of my o‘s came out as u‘s, and to this day iddu and idda sound more natural than lui and lei. But no one would ever say what I spoke was Sicilian rather than Italian.

After a year of Italian, I had a good grasp of most grammar. When time came to register for fall classes, it was a foregone conclusion I’d be taking a language. But should that language be Italian? By this point I was communicating more with my grandmother in Italian than in English, a situation that only increased until she passed away about five years later. I felt that additional Italian courses would focus on improving my vocabulary and fluency, but that I could also get that at home. Besides, I was in college — when else would I have an opportunity to study some REALLY different language?

I’d toyed for a long time (going back even before high school) with the idea of learning Russian. I think I just saw it as a weird language that was present in the zeitgeist of the day (I was a child of the ’80s, after all). But I’ve also always had a weird fascination with East Asia that I can’t explain. At the time, a close friend had just finished a year of Japanese, so I figured what the hell, why not? I signed up for Japanese. It changed everything.

(I’m getting tired and this is getting longer than I’d thought. Part 2 to follow tomorrow.)



~ by chewie93 on March 6, 2017.

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